Experts claim that the risk of dying on a plane is one in 11,000,000, when dying in a car accident are about one in 5,000.While air travel can be associated with unprecedented safety, comfort, and speed, unfortunately every coin has a dark side. We looked at four major historical commercial aircraft crashes and the significant safety improvements made in their aftermath.  

Why do airplane crashes happen? 

Aircraft crash due to several reasons. About 53% of fatal accidents are the direct result of a pilot mistake. The weather is behind 12% of all plane crashes. Last but not least, approximately 8% of plane crashes are caused by sabotage.

Takeoff and landing are considered to be the most dangerous parts of a flight. During these stages, planes are flying low and slow, and if a problem occurs, pilots have not much time to react. On the other hand, if something happens during the cruising stage, the flight crew has more time and possibilities to resolve the issue. Boeing statistics show that 20% of fatal accidents happen during the takeoff. In comparison, it was estimated that only 8% of fatal plane crashes occur during cruising. 

Learning from mistakes: how past crashes influences current safety

United Airlines Flight 826 mid-air collision with Trans World Airlines Flight 266

United Airlines Douglas DC-8 collided in mid-air with Trans World Airlines (TWA) Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation near Miller Field, New York, United States on December 16, 1960. The accident claimed 134 lives,  including six people on the ground. 

To get extensive details about the  disaster, for the first time investigators used data from a flight recorder or a“black box”. The accident made the air-traffic providers reevaluate the safety modernization at the governmental level. 

The Federal Aviation Agency, later renamed the Federal Aviation Administration, enacted new regulations to prevent the recurrence of mid-air collisions. One of the rules required all pilots operating under instrument flight to report all malfunctions on navigation or communication equipment.  Also, the planes had to maintain a 250 knot limit near airports. The United Airlines Douglas DC-8 was traveling at 301 knots.

Tenerife Disaster: KLM Flight 4805/Pan Am Flight 1736

On March 27, 1977, two Boeing 747 aircraft collided on the runway in Los Rodeos Airport (now Tenerife North Airport, TFN) in Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain. The accident, which claimed 583 lives, remains the deadliest in aviation history. 

Several simultaneous events lead to this tragedy. The same day of the KLM and Pan Am flights, the CIIM terrorists exploded one bomb at Las Palmas de Gran Canaria Airport. They were threatening to explode a second bomb, which forced police to shut down the airport to search for it. Many flights, including KLM flight 4805 and Pan Am Flight 1736 were diverted to Los Rodeos Airport. 

The airport had only one runway and one major taxiway parallel to it, with four short taxiways connecting the two. That led to the runway incursion. The incursion and a series of miscommunications among the two flight crews and Air Traffic Control, according to the Spanish authorities, were fundamental causes of the accident. The KLM plane initiated takeoff, while the Pan Am jumbo jet was still on the same runway. 

After the accident, authorities introduced crucial changes to international airline regulations. All control towers and flight crews worldwide were required to use standardized English phrases. The hierarchy among crew members was deemphasized in favour of decision-making by mutual agreement. The accident is also seen as a turning-point after which the now-standard crew resource management was “born”.

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While the events in Tenerife on March 27, 1977, left the bloodiest mark in aviation's history, it also left a long-standing legacy that improved the safety of everyone onboard an aircraft.
 

Air India Flight 182: the deadliest act of aviation terrorism until 9/11

On June 23, 1985, Air India Boeing 747  was flying from Toronto, Canada to New Delhi, India. While nearing the coast of Ireland, a bomb planted in the jumbo jet’s  cargo hold exploded. The plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean 120 miles off the Irish coast, killing all 329 people on board.